I had never thought that there’d be a day when I would blog about a book I have read. For an overthinker like yours truly, I surely never articulated the power of literature to change things. Well, unless I decided to seriously pursue writing. I think that’s maybe because I asked myself why I wanted to write besides the momentary joy of it.
As a reader I believe that books come to you when you are ready for them. The seemingly inanimate pages displaying strings of characters and words collectively carry something palpable, something so intimate that the reader lives the words. Isn’t that the singularly most awe inspiring and powerful thing about the written word? Starting with simpler books for young adults, I read a varied set of books, each of which leave me with something new. Of course, there have been occasional instances of a few books that don’t sit well or put me to sleep within a few pages. Those, I leave.
Until 2017, I had never been the one to actively aspire to read a certain number of books through the year. In 2017, I decided to keep track of my reading, if not have targets. I am reading 3 wonderful books while the ones that I have read lie happily with slightly worn off pages in my bookshelf. Of these, the one that compelled me to write this is Perumal Murugan’s ‘One Part Woman’.
I stumbled upon this book through an artist who recommended the read. Her work and her style continues to inspire me and I decided to give this book a shot since the basic plot type has seldom seemed inviting to me. When reading up about the writer after reading it, I realised that Murugan was in fact, the writer who somewhere stirred the desire of writing professionally, in me. I was pursuing my Masters when I had read extensively about him as a writer who was harassed for his work. I remembered being in awe of the offense taken at a work of fiction by a mass of people and the subsequent responses of the writer to not write anymore. I had decided that I want to be such a writer, who would however, continue dissent.
When I started reading the book, I fell in love with the imagery created by Murugan – the portia tree, the farm, the forest and the mountains, Kali’s drowsy body staring at the canopy, Ponna’s beauty – all of it made me feel like I was a voyeur in the most tender and intimate lives of the two. So, Ponna’s pain and anger made me sad and want to reason with her that being childless is no sin, Kali’s listless personality and eventual mistrust of Ponna made me weep wanting to reach out and tell him the truth.
Once the emotions faded, the crucial importance of this book is what stayed with me making me want to write this. Through the narration of the life, love and loss of Ponna and Kali, Murugan very intelligently displays everything that feminism speaks against, everything that is wrong with the patriarchal world view. For Indian feminists, I think the book serves as the go to book to identify and work through typically Indian realities in a discourse dominated by non-Indian writing.
That patriarchal mindsets are poisonous for every individual, became the truth for me through an independent research project that had cleared the picture. ‘One Part Woman’ further makes the damages of patriarchy so simple, bringing it in rural Indian context sharing thereby, how the rigidity of these ideas and rituals destroys human happiness of a daily basis.
Kali and Ponna, the two protagonists in the story, through the eventual destruction of their love, display the seemingly micro yet key impact of patriarchal beliefs. Ponna is unable to bear a child which is a cause of much shame and sorrow. To an urban mind, this would of course feel exaggerated. One would want to say to the woman and her kin in such a case, that they need to just shake off the worry and adopt of maybe just understand that giving birth to a child is not the be all and end all of a woman’s existence. However, the writer is able to share just how painfully real these beliefs are and how what is required is a larger, cultural thought revolution. I have, through various tools, shared the hypocrisy of Indian society when it comes to honour engendered in the female body. On one side here, adoption does not seem like a possibility (which is the case even for urban Indians), the other side has the family contemplating getting Ponna impregnated (after all pleas and fasts to god fail) by taking her to a religious festival where for a day “gods” descend from the hills to bless women with children. Note, these gods are men, penis-bearing male bodies, intoxicated and let lose for a day to sleep with any woman that comes their way. Also note, that on this day, any woman is allowed to sleep with the man who becomes god for a night.
The two are tricked by her parents and brother wherein Kali isn’t told about Ponna’s going to the festival while Ponna is told that Kali approves. What then happens is where the intelligent storytelling comes in. True to expectation, while Kali, who had become aggressive as a husband often raping his wife every other night in a state of drunkenness and anger at her even asking him if they should consider the festival as the way to have their child, is heartbroken eventually and directs all his anger towards his wife; Ponna, on the other hand, is childlike and enjoying the new sense of adventure that her life seemed to have brought in through this desire to seek a god to help her. It is in this sequence when the narrative tone changes from Ponna’s true identity, her likes, dislike, sorrows, disappointments, all brought to the fore while Kali’s constant benevolence at being okay without a child yet still craving fatherhood, sling away into the shadows of his sorrow.
What had seemed like the most passionate love for Ponna with vivid descriptions of Kali’s sight, his expression of love for her by nuzzling his face between her breasts; turns out to be yet another story where the woman’s voice was stifled. Ponna had been in love with someone else but, it was custom for her to not fight for it and give in to the family’s decision to marry Kali. Ponna was Kali’s first love but, not the first one to be made love with.
One Part Woman therefore, becomes an essential read for Indian readers to share the key reason for feminism – the culture of silence breeding a continuous quiet among its women. As far as one can think, whether physically same or not, a woman is a human being first. Why silence her voice then?
Wasn’t what happened in Bangalore assumed to be only limited to the new pussy grabbing America?
Or wait, maybe these men were just following the world order of aping the West?
But, aren’t we very simple and cultured Indians?
So? They still can.
Duh! Because they are men and they can.
Ummm, okay but, not all men behave like that I think. These were some stupid ones I think. They were just drunk… But, then doesn’t Abu Azmi say that ALL women like sugar and ALL men like ants? If he is in power, then he must be speaking the gospel truth right? ‘Cause it is ONLY honesty that makes you a cop or a politician? Only the regular people are dishonest aren’t they? Oh sorry, it is the women’s fault. They got too liberated because of these stupid liberals. Those women should have known their place. Where is that, you ask? Inside the walls of patriarchy but, of course!
Till today it is difficult for me to believe that the city where I spent two of the most wonderful years of my life witnessed such an atrocity. It was that city that had sent me back to my home state with a set of very uncomfortable questions. It was that city that was safe to be traveled in buses as opposed to Delhi. Only once in 2 years did I witness lecherous behaviour there and heard of a few. I brushed it off assuming that where we were was, after all suburban Bangalore, where a serial rapist and murdered had escaped from the state jail. Such things were okay to be heard of or read about in suburban or rural areas or as many spell out the names of Delhi, Haryana and Rajasthan – the last one, especially, with a strange smile that asked too many intrusive questions without uttering a single word. But, now it has happened in a very central part of a growing cosmopolitan city. When a photo journalist was raped in a mill compound in Mumbai, it was again forgotten quickly since she was alone and they were ‘illiterate, north Indian men’ who do such things often. But, now Bangalore and the numerous protectors of women’s modesty, the owners of open spaces in the society did something unimaginable.
I can only imagine by a little ounce of what those women must have felt as 2017 dawned and they found many, many city dwellers, maybe quite a few ‘educated ones’, act as if these women were nothing but, stupid toys that could be flung here and there or maybe lab rats that could be poked here and there and just observed.
I am not saying that the northern part of the country is heaven or is even in some twisted competition against the south / east / west in its sex ratio or data of (ill)treatment of women. Living in Bombay, I have seen an amazing number of cases of harassment, stalking, sexism at workplaces than what was combined in Jaipur, Delhi and Bangalore. I will also say that I had the fortune of being told that I am a girl and need to behave accordingly very few times in my life. Even when I was, thankfully, I knew better. However, that is not the case for so so many of my friends who told me that feminism or belief of total gender equality are things to be read in books but, compromised with when out in the real world. What do I say of the the vast majority of unknown female Indians.
Why I did not pay as much attention to the media, nor did I get passionately angry like I know myself to get at the hands of injustice of any kind is because somewhere deep down, I have been conditioned to accept that such things happen and we can only fight our own petty battles, that even when some people are caught, people are going to go back home and still make this world entitled to the male sex. What is needed is a cultural shift and a consciousness of thought, speech and action. It is each human’s responsibility and I believe that the ‘change’ or the equality of gender can be brought in only through attitudinal shifts in understanding that the one with a vagina is a human being at the end of the day. Formal education does not guarantee any change. I have been dealt sexism at the hands of the smartest (well educated) men and women – even those who shout out for creating an equal world.
What does this say to you? What kind of world are we living in? Grabbing them by the pussy or by the breasts or even dragging them by the hair. Haven’t we learnt better?
If it is religion you follow, seeking the principled Ram and his conduct with his wife, also remember Durga. Religion, philosophy is what we choose to believe in at that crucial moment when all we have to behave as is a human being.
To the men who read this and cringe saying not all men think like this, I would just say that its quite good on you if you dont but, every time you see a woman pass by, I hope you dont eye her as if she is grilled meat no matter what she wears. I hope you dont cut through what a woman might be saying at work in a meeting to just repeat what she said a minute back. I hope you dont judge a woman based on her relationship status or sex life and her position of power in the workplace. I hope you don’t feel slightly crestfallen when someday your first born is a daughter. I hope you dont tell her that some things are not meant for her. I hope you share such ideals of yours with other men around you and raise a son who follows all of this and treats a person simply as a human being without being biased with whats between their legs.
Lalbaug cha Raja, Mumbai, 2014.
What is religion and what is culture? Our understanding and opinion of the same is changing everyday and will continue to do so as time passes. As I write this today, I am witnessing, for the third time, the phenomenon of Ganapati in Mumbai, India. Anyone who has grown up in the country and watched a little bit of Bollywood would know the importance and charm that the festival of Ganapati’s birth (marked by Ganesh Chaturthi) and eventual immersion holds. Having lived in two other parts and three other cities of the country, I can say that there is no other place in the country that celebrates the festival with such oomph.
Before moving here and watching a Bollywood flick called Agneepath roughly four years back, I remember making a mental note to be in the city during Ganapati at least once in my life. Lo and behold, it has become three but, now during the third time the charm seems to be slowly wearing off. I am trying to retrieve it from the recesses of my heart hoping that it might be hidden somewhere underneath the pressures of daily life but, all I see is a momentary thump and tap on the beats of the drums and songs followed by a swift running away with hands on my ears the very next minute.
“Have I become and intolerant waysider?”, I ask myself, scared of receiving an answer in the affirmative.
But, the answer comes in an elaborate questioning of culture and religion and the precarious religious influence on culture. This time around the pandal of Ganesha statues was right next to the building where I stay. Since I am on the first floor, sight and sound came with full intensity. At the start of the festival, what started off as excitement of the upcoming festival turned into a daily nightmare. When done with the day’s work, I longed to be home but, also resented being home since the productive hours of the evening and night would go into dealing with thumping bass from DJ sets, loud breathless singing of aartis, and then even louder music.
Disclaimer – I have lived near Parel before this, close to the home of Siddhivinayak, so not that I did not expect this but, yes, experienced it at a much closer hand this time since the earlier building was a tall tower where my room was conveniently tucked on a higher floor.
Anyway, cutting on my rant, what I am left with at the end of the festival is a question around boundaries between culture, religion and blind following of rituals. I personally do not believe in praying to some external entity and hoping for things to move but, I also understand and respect when others have belief in a God. I also believe that such festivals are also an integral part of our culture – Mumbai wouldn’t be Mumbai without Ganpati madness and Kolkata wouldn’t be so without the gorgeousness of Pujo. However, my question here is – how do we justify following what a god says and believe that we are truly following his / her belief systems, if we fail to take responsibility for the impact that our actions might create on people and other beings in our surroundings. Question is, when someone points out the unnecessary pollution – both water and noise – that these events create, will we harass and bully the, saying the are eco-friendly idols as well and that the questioner is just another adarsh liberal talking about unIndian ideas; or will we pause, think and rework our celebration activities starting next year? I see the youth handling things for the celebrations in most societies. If the youth cannot believe that they can change things or that the way things have to be done culturally has to be adapted to the changes of times, then we better dread what our future would look like.